American Golems

Week Two is now, as they say, in the books (perhaps “in the comics” would be more appropriate here). This week was a bit of a departure from our usual coursework studying graphic novels. After discussing Maus Book I early in the week, we shifted our focus to studying Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Having been so deeply immersed in the hybrid medium of comics, jumping to a thick tome was both refreshing and jarring. Fortunately, Kavalier and Clay is one of the most well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking texts I have read in a long time, and despite its length, I am enjoying every single page of it.

The story follows two cousins, Josef Kavalier and Sammy Klayman, as they collaborate to create an incredibly successful comic book series in late 1930s New York City. Josef is a Jewish refugee from his native Czechoslovakia, having escaped to America in a wooden box alongside the legendary Golem of Prague to avoid being discovered by the Nazis. Upon arriving in America, Josef moves in with his cousin, who becomes enamored with Joe’s illustrative skills. The two join forces, rebranding themselves as Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, and create the Escapist, a superhero able to escape from any lock, trap, or otherwise-imprisoning situation. Based on Joe’s background in magic, illusions, and legerdemain, and Sam’s reverence of Harry Houdini, their character becomes a huge success within the first year. The remainder of the novel follows the evolution of the cousins’ careers and personal lives as they struggle with the pressures of fame, wealth, and Jewish identity in the era of World War II.

Amidst the cleverly-written superhero backstory chapters and action sequences, both in-comic and out, are critical character studies of flawed people trying to survive in a brutal , strife-ridden landscape. Joe’s incredible talent is only a means through which he can make enough money to rescue his family from Nazi-occupied Europe, and he constantly questions whether or not his efforts are in vain as their safety becomes increasingly compromised. Sam navigates a financial jungle in which he is ripped off at every turn, struggles with being overshadowed by the titanic artistry of his cousin, and grapples with understanding his sexual orientation. As their success grows, so too does the ideological chasm between Sam and Joe. The second half of the novel promises to develop this emerging tension in engaging detail.

After we wrap up Kavalier and Clay, we will return to the graphic novel to round out the course. Some upcoming highlights include Book II of Maus, Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, and Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York. Stay tuned for the scoop on these texts! I hope you’re as excited as I am!